I’ve mentioned it previously, but I am working my way through Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”. Though the title may come off as a bit eccentric, thus far it seems like a factual representation of the way digital media is changing our thought processes. I finished chapter 2 titled “Vital Paths” today. Carr reviews the history of theories and research involving how the brain functions, develops and adapts. From ancient philosophers like Aristotle to MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Carr leads us through the evolution of brain research. He presents very compelling research about the brain’s plasticity. For example, if a person becomes blind and learns to read Braille, “the visual cortex will be redeployed for processing information delivered through the sense of touch” (Carr). The same is true of other sensual impairments; remaining senses become heightened because the brain utilizes the unused space for new functions.
Another interesting experiment compared brain scans of 16 London cab drivers with two to forty-two years of experience to a control group. When compared to the control group, “taxi drivers’ posterior hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a key role in storing and manipulating spatial representations of a person’s surroundings, was much larger than normal. Moreover, the longer a cab driver had been on the job, the larger his posterior hippocampus tended to be” (Carr). The research supports the notion that our brains can adapt to best suit our needs. Carr sums it up succinctly: “We become, neurologically, what we think.” The study also showed that the drivers’ anterior hippocampus were smaller than average, suggesting that their brains had to “make room” for the posterior area.
These new mental circuits are strengthened by repetition and become habits. But “once we’ve wired new circuitry in our brain, Doidge writes, ‘we long to keep it activated'”(Carr, Norman Doidge is a research psychiatrist cited in the book). Based on the title of the book, Carr is clearly setting up his explanation of how the internet is changing our neural pathways and is pointing out that these new habits aren’t easily altered.